Policing diverse communities in the 21st century

This piece first appeared in The Bay Area Reporter on December 17, 2015.

By Scott Wiener

The year 2015 has been transformative in terms of public scrutiny of policing in the United States, and San Francisco is no exception. From Ferguson to Chicago to Baltimore, we are soul-searching as a society about what it means to have effective policing and, of equal importance, what it means for all communities to have confidence in law enforcement.

Most recently, San Francisco police officers shot and killed Mario Woods, a Bayview resident and stabbing suspect who failed to drop his knife even after less-than-lethal force was used to disarm him. The videos of this incident are jarring and raise questions that will, we hope, be resolved after multiple ongoing investigations are concluded and all facts are compiled and analyzed. It's important to let these investigations play out.

This conversation is an important one: How do we ensure police accountability to the community while also recognizing the critically important role that police officers play in keeping our community safe and the dangers officers confront every day? How do we build trust between diverse communities and law enforcement so that these communities view the police as partners in improving safety? How do we create a collaborative relationship between the police and the community?

The current relationship between police and young men of color in San Francisco is troubled and needs significant work. We need to transform that relationship into a collaborative partnership to improve community safety. In doing so, the LGBT community needs to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the African-American community.

The LGBT community has a long history with law enforcement. That history was negative for many years, with improvements over time and more work to do. For years, the LGBT community's interactions with law enforcement were frequently defined by enforcement of repressive laws, raids on bars and other gathering places, excessive force, and lack of support for the safety needs of LGBT people. In San Francisco, the troubled relationship between law enforcement and the LGBT community reached a low point in 1979 during the White Night riots, when Dan White was acquitted of murder for the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. LGBT people marched on City Hall and, in extreme frustration with a broken criminal justice system that had exonerated the murder of our leader, rioted. Hours later, police retaliated by attacking a bar in the Castro and badly beating LGBT patrons.

After the White Night riots, relations between the LGBT community and the police gradually improved. The leadership of the police department became more pro-LGBT, and more LGBT people entered the department. Progressive training programs were implemented, and the department engaged in community outreach. Over time, LGBT people have been promoted into the command staff, they have held leadership posts in the police union, and openly transgender officers have been recruited and promoted.

Yet, issues remain, particularly building confidence in the transgender community and especially among trans women of color, including immigrant trans women, who have been murdered at outrageously high rates in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Homophobic and racist text messages within the department, as revealed earlier this year, further undermined confidence. Only by continually building trust between the community and law enforcement can we hope to forge the partnerships so critical to stopping these crimes.

We can build that trust, and doing so is a two-way street. Every day, the police must work hard to demonstrate their commitment to community policing in diverse communities. Officers need to know the communities they police. In addition to driving in their police cars, officers need to be out on the streets and integrating into the community. We need to take a critical look at use-of-force policies, improve training, require body cameras, and expand SFPD's ability to respond to people who are mentally ill or otherwise in crisis. The department has made significant strides both in training officers to deal with mentally ill subjects and taking a community-policing approach to law enforcement, but there is more to do.

Building trust also requires the community to be full partners with police in improving public safety. In addition to reporting crimes, we need to be aware of the dangers officers face every day as they do their jobs. While many of us instinctively run from danger, police are required to run toward danger. Demonizing police officers – the significant majority of whom work hard to do their job and keep us safe – isn't helpful.

Another key way of building trust with the community is to bring new, young, diverse officers into the department. Incorporating young people into policing – a generation highly sensitive to the importance of embracing diversity – is perhaps the single most effective thing we can do to bring law enforcement into the 21st century. I recently saw this culture shift in a very tangible way when a transgender friend of mine went through the police academy. I attended her academy graduation, and when I arrived and looked at the program, I was thrilled to learn that her classmates had elected her class president. It is hard to imagine that happening even 10 years ago. If that decision by overwhelmingly non-LGBT police academy cadets isn't a sign of change and a harbinger of future cultural changes in policing, then I don't know what is.

We need to take steps to ensure that police are full allies to our diverse communities and that they are perceived as such. Working together, we can get there.

Scott Wiener, a gay man, is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and represents District 8, which includes the Castro, Noe Valley, and Glen Park.

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